Sunday, May 6, 2012

Iran, Obama and Bibi’s October Surprise

by Jonathan S. Tobin

On Friday, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 said aloud what others had been whispering in recent days. The Times of Israel reports that commentator Amnon Abramovich claimed today’s announcement that new Israeli elections will be scheduled for September 4 may set in motion a chain of events that could lead to an Israeli attack on Iran sometime between that date and the U.S. presidential election in November. The scenario makes sense on the surface in that if, as expected, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wins an easy victory in September, he theoretically would have two months to strike Iran while President Obama was campaigning for re-election and therefore unlikely to condemn or punish Israel for ignoring his wishes about the use of force to fend off Tehran’s nuclear threat.

That isn’t likely to happen for a number of reasons, but the mere fact that it might is a positive development. As much as there is good reason to doubt that even under such seemingly favorable circumstances Israel would attack Iran on its own, the election announcement will have the salubrious effect of concentrating the minds of President Obama and his shaky allies in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The only reason the West has stepped up its previously weak sanctions on Iran that led to the current lackluster negotiations is that they believed Israel would act unless they started behaving as if they cared about the problem. As most informed observers have noted, the chances of the talks achieving anything that would actually lessen the danger are slim. But if the Iranians as well as Obama and his partners think Israel will strike in the fall that could put tremendous pressure on both sides to do more than diplomatic game playing.

For all of the hysterical criticism being aimed at Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for their supposed messianism about dealing with Iran, they have actually gone about their business on this issue in a rational manner. By making it clear to the world that Israel would not allow the Islamist regime to pose an existential threat to its existence, they have forced Obama to ratchet up his own rhetoric and to foreswear any policy of “containing” a nuclear Iran. They have also managed to pressure the European Union to threaten an oil embargo of Iran that would have been unimaginable without their fear that an Israeli attack would overturn the entire Middle East chessboard.

But Netanyahu and Barak are also keenly aware of the danger of pushing too far. That’s why it is equally unimaginable they would order a strike on Iran while the West was actively conducting nuclear negotiations. Though no one should think they would not use force as a last resort, they have throughout this crisis made it clear they understood it is far better for the West — whose interests are involved in this matter as much as that of Israel — to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

However, once the talks started last month, it seemed as if Israel had lost its leverage. The Iranians are past masters of playing diplomatic hide and seek with credulous Western negotiators. This round of talks started off no different than previous futile attempts to make the ayatollahs see reason. With European Union foreign policy chief Catherin Ashton in charge of the negotiations, there seemed little chance the West would push the Iranians hard. With both sides more intent on preventing an Israeli attack than on actually coming up with a deal that would shut down Iran’s nuclear program, it seemed likely that they would be dragged out until the end of the year when a re-elected President Obama might have the “flexibility” to take a less harsh view of the issue than when the votes of the pro-Israel community were up for grabs.

But if Obama believes there is a window for an Israeli attack in the fall prior to November, that might scare him into forcing Ashton and the negotiators to get tough. Though there is no reason to believe any amount of Western pressure, sanctions or threats will persuade Iran to give up its ambition of a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu’s election schedule might be enough to get the West to follow through on its oil embargo and to refuse to allow the Islamist regime to play them for the suckers in the P5+1 talks. Rather than the September 4 election making a unilateral Israeli strike more likely, it just might be the thing that could stiffen the spines of Obama and his European partners during the next six months.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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